Saturday 29 September 2018

I Found a... Pipe

I thought it worthwhile to start some episodic blogposts in a series titled "I Found a...".  Finding objects (and adapting them) is an enduring mainstay of 'miraculous agitations', post-electronic music, Oscillatorial Binnage performances, etc.  Losing objects is also a longstanding interest too, viz. the impish practice of randomly leaving cassettes or CD-Rs of jarring music in public.  Here however, the basic act of discovering objects and beholding the onrush of associations will be examined, without any necessarily musical/sonic objectives in mind.  This is the first episode...

On the morning of the 25th September 2018 I was walking to the train station.  I tripped on something lying half-exposed on a gravel footpath leading to the station, sending me careering into a bench.  At the time, blogging about this was the last thing on my mind; I thanked the heavens that nobody was around to witness my freakish pratfall - embarrassing as it was.

The ground-embedded object that triggered this physical disarray (mercifully not causing any injury) demanded closer inspection.  It looked like a lump of natural iron ore, or possibly even a piece of valuable metal meteorite.  Nobody was around, so I kicked and prodded it until it loosened.  With a key, I was able to prise it from the footpath like a very low-rent and fiddly Excalibur.  Closer inspection revealed a seam at one end, indicating manmade origin, and it was interesting to see this iron pipe-like artefact - whatever it once was - half-way to becoming mineral again.  The exposed side was worn smooth (from years of people walking - or tripping - over it), whereas the underside had small stones or crystalline growths on its surface.  Both ends of it were solidly blocked with earth, making it quite heavy.

Whilst carrying it towards the station, its dirtying effect upon the hands became evident.  I was reluctant to discard it, as I enjoyed its half-manmade / half-mineral aspect, so I went into the station shop (which had a patisserie section) and asked for a tissue serviette.  The cashier said I'd have to buy some food first.  Inwardly I felt aggrieved, as this was known to be a somewhat bigoted means of denying destitutes access to serviettes, which, to the homeless, are essential for daily alluvials.  I lied and said, "I bought this chocolate bun earlier and forgot to take a serviette," then momentarily held up the rusty pipe above the counter.  The timing of this psychological dodge was crucial: if I'd held up the pipe in the wrong hand, or for a nanosecond too long, the cashier would've immediately recognised that it certainly wasn't a chocolate bun.  I was almost poised to sheepishly confess the truth: that I'd found something rusty and dearly wanted something to wrap it in.  Luckily the magic of suggestion worked wonders, and I obtained not one, but three serviettes without a hitch.  After arriving in London I wrapped it in a free Metro newspaper for good measure.

Far left / far right: Close ups showing both ends of the mysterious pipe
During the day I began to feel concerned about the pipe, mindful of unexploded World War II munitions, nuclear waste, and of the recent Salisbury incident with the found perfume bottle containing nerve agent.  The power of suggestion - which worked so marvellously with the earlier "chocolate bun" serviette request - was now working against me, as I seemed to feel slightly ill, so I resolved to carry my bag as far from my body as possible.  Maybe it's irresponsible to carry an unknown object in public?

Later, I went to the British Library.  They operate a bag check policy, and for a perilous moment it seemed that the mystery metal pipe might need to be explained.  I wouldn't be able to explain it.  The attendant prodded the newspaper+serviette swaddling but didn't comment upon it thankfully.

After eating I forgot about the pipe and felt more buoyant.  In the afternoon I met with a friend - who is something of an art connoisseur - at his apartment.  Remembering the pipe during a lull in conversation, it seemed logical to tell him the full story of the pipe.  He happened to have a plumber working on his premises, and he warned "don't tell any of this to the plumber, he'll think you're insane".  Of course I had no intention to.  I jokingly appealed my friend's dealerly expertise to put a valuation on the pipe, to which he punchlined without hesitation "two-hundred pounds".  Writing this now, this doesn't seem such an utterly absurd figure as it did at the time... (kind reader, feel free to make an offer).

The next day I re-examined the pipe and scraped its innards with an old screwdriver to discover its contents.  At one point it felt like it might contain coins - a flat silvery obstruction suggested it might be a tube full of antique sixpences, but it was just a stone.  Eventually the interior was cleaned of grit and mud to reveal a clear channel through it.

Some of the other larger stones inside were charcoal or coal, indicating its possible origin as steam-train paraphernalia, which would make sense given that it was found near the station (which has been in operation since the 1840s).

After taking some photos, I reasoned that having expended all this time and thought upon this object I might as well make a blogpost about it, or even a series of posts about found objects which might make semi-demi-entertaining reading for people as winter approaches.  In one final attempt to derive some meaningful use from this pipe, I blew into it at various angles to try to elicit tones from it.  With a hand covering one end, bamboo-flute style, it did produce a wispy tone, but I suddenly recoiled, remembering the fate of the scholar in M. R. James' 1904 ghost story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to you, My Lad' who finds a "metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age" and clears it of earth (in same way I did), and obtains a note from it, heralding spooky experiences...   In the story, the protagonist has all his entrenched preconceptions about reality and its certainties upended as a result.  And... on second thoughts, maybe this isn't so bad?  And maybe this is what we essentially desire from found objects anyway?  The pipe is now in a drawer for possible future use.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Dead Air (The Wire #414)

The Wire #414 - a Minimalism special - contains my short history of broadcast radio silence (precursors to John Cage's unrealised 1948 plan to broadcast silence over the Muzak cable network).  The piece does, however, contain an editorial distortion! Hopefully I can provide an errata here.

It's frustrating when meaning is lost during editorial trimming down of writing, but a paid outlet for new research (even if slightly maimed by editors) is preferable to the unpaid academic journals who often disparage submissions from non-institutional researchers like me.... so... mustn't grumble too much.

The BBC's ticking clock, c.1930.
For silent moments in programmes.
I'd written about the 'ghost in galoshes' - the nickname given to the BBC's ticking clock sound that reassured 1930s listeners during silent moments within radio programmes.  15-minutes of this ticking was broadcast in October 1932 when the script for J. B. Priestley's talk To a Highbrow was mislaid.  I'd originally written that this 'dead air' was rebroadcast via a transatlantic line to the US CBS network at a reported cost of £2-per-minute.  However, in the editing (without my knowledge), this crucial detail about the transatlantic relay was removed, leading readers to assume that merely broadcasting silence itself cost £2-per-minute (roughly £100-per-minute today).

Despite this failing, the piece may have interest for anyone curious about the origin of the radio term 'dead air'.  Modern glossaries date it to the 1940s, but my research indicates it originates in late-1920s New York radio circles.  One of its earliest appearances is in a rare little dictionary of radio slang printed in early 1931, compiled by New York-based CBS engineer Irving Reis: the entry reads "Dead Air - Absence of broadcasting" alongside "Dead Mike" (an unconnected microphone).  Technological progress has rendered most other featured terms obsolete: 'Soup' (current fed to the aerial), 'Woof' (signal to start a programme), or 'Motorboating' (a distinctive sound produced when powered microphones had insufficient volume) are all unfamiliar now.

'Dead air' also appears in a transcript of spoken testimony dated November 1st 1929 during an appeal by the imperilled station WMAK against the Federal Radio Commission, who were insistent that stations in New York's overcrowded ether use their wavelength to full capacity.  Here, newspaper reporter and employee of the station WGR for Buffalo, New York - William G. Cook - used the term at least twice weighing up instances of radio silence.  As the Wire piece states, the negative term originated in America where airtime was precious, yet broadcast silence was more valued in other countries (notably the UK and Japan).  The BBC's director-general John Reith stated in January 1930: "We need silence badly, and consciously or unconsciously long for it"...

William G. Cook (left) and Irving Reis (right) - responsible for early appearances of the term 'dead air' in print.
Read more in this month's The Wire #414 for more - 'When Less Is More'

Saturday 28 April 2018

Meadow House 2LP 'tapedropping' anthology in Freq e-zine

Many thanks to Mr. Olivetti for writing such a generous and in-depth review of the two new limited edition Meadow House LPs for Freq.  It can be read in full in the Freq - here.

Meadow House LPs 'Misadventures on the Scorn Cycle' and 'This should not be happening' - copies still available.

Sunday 11 February 2018

The Wire #409 - Psyphonics: Further Listening

Coined by soundscape theorists Stuart Gage and Bernie Krause, the terms biophony, geophony and anthrophony have come to represent the complete range of sound-types audible within natural recordings (referring to biological sounds, geological sounds, and human/machine sounds).  March's eclectic issue of The Wire (#409) features my piece on psyphony - an impish addition to this trio.

Gage and Krause's terminological trinity isn't a totally inviolable gamut.  The definitions can be chipped away to some pedantic extent, e.g., where do those rare sounds that penetrate earth's atmosphere from outer space fit into this?  Appropriate terms might be 'cosmophony'(?) or 'astrophony'(?).  But I digress slightly...  The Wire's article - appropriately titled 'Further Listening' - goes far beyond this into more wayward territories, introducing psyphony as a capturing of hypothetical intangible essences of thought and idea within sound.  (Readers of this blog may be reminded of the previous blogposts on Delawarr Laboratories' "thought-to-sound" experiments).

Without giving away too much of the piece (which is a fun 'thought piece' whilst also containing fresh research-nuggets such as the BBC's radio telepathy experiments and J. Tyssul Davis' odd never-before-discussed 1928 publication The Sound of Your Face), it will suffice to say that the term psyphony can be applied to audio pieces that challenge or call into question the extent of any hearing person's sonic perception.  However spurious psyphony may appear, its concept can be discerned within today's experimental music and radio art, from occult/quasi-occult sound practices (for example - Silent Records' compilation Tulpamancers: A Collection of Sonic Thoughtforms) to the more procedural technologically-geared sonifications and data mappings (as with Masaki Batoh's Brain Pulse Music).  It spans various genres.  The concept of psyphonics came into focus whilst contemplating Viewfound's EP Memorate, a dense ambient EP aiming to capture memory essences.  The concept was also tentatively trotted out to describe the fascinating sound-work of Aki Onda.

Silent Records' compilation Tulpamancers / Shimmering Moods releases: Memorate by Viewfound / Resonant Moments by Andrew Tasselmyer
Some may view psyphony as indicative of a recoil from modernity's technological materialism.  To those who may decry its 'woolliness', they should bear in mind that similar ideas can be found in plain sight in the most sedate framings...  When I first visited The Wire magazine's office some years ago - back when they were situated on the upper floor of a building near Spitalfields Market - interesting music was being played.  I asked what the piece of music was.  I can't remember the answer to this, but more memorable was the casual remark that every month, any music played in the office gets listed in The Wire's special 'Office Ambience' tracklist.  As a little metaphysical aside, it was quipped that the music heard in the office might be somehow ingrained - as a quantum essence - within that month's issue.  It was said in jest... but as George Orwell once commented: "every joke is a tiny revolution"....

The full particulars on 'psyphonics' can be read in The Wire #409, March 2018 - out now.